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Thursday, September 08, 2011

An article on the article

What word, more than any other, appears with laborious regularity, with monotonous determinacy in every tract by every major author in the English language? What word pops up time and time again, with the bumptious certitude of a cliche, the complacent comfort of a worn-out homily, mindlessly repeated by droning nitwits and drivelling politicians, the world over? What word has become so obvious and so necessary that it no longer seems obvious even while it is staring you right in the face, a word that has already appeared five times in this very passage? What word other than the definite article, the word used to 'denote person(s) or thing(s) already mentioned, under discussion, implied, or familiar', as the 'first part of a noun phrase', what other word could I be talking about than the 'the'?

It is depressing once you come to realise that even the greatest of poets have paid homage to this small syllabub in the very first words of their most famous works. Shelley, in Mont Blanc:

The everlasting universe of things*
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves...
Gray, in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The curfew tolls the knell of passing day...
Hemans, in Casabianca:

The boy stood on the burning deck
When all but he had fled...
Meanwhile, I just scrutinised a list of famous first lines from novels, and aside from coming up with another batch of examples beginning with the definite article - 'The Miss Lonelyhearts of New York', 'The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new', 'The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel' - but I also came up with this very famous example from Charles Dickens, which, while it does not start with the definite article, could be seen as little more than a way of filling up the inconvenient blanks that occur between definite articles with meaningful words:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
It is an odd, unprepossessing word, the definite article; a most unmusical, functional gobbet of speech: a short, three letter word beginning with two consonants and followed up by not much else. Ever since the English started speaking English, poets must have been uncertain over whether it was to be pronounced with a long 'e' - making it possible to pronounce it in an exaggerated, tuneful, or dramatic fashion, though why would you want to - or a short 'e', thus making it... not very much at all really, other than a useful device for tripping between the other words.

On the whole, one can think of much better words with which to open epic, sprawling novels; great, tumultuous dramas - the Shakespearean 'O', for instance, giving me one of my favourite examples:

O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The very brightest heavens of invention...
the epic 'Of':

Of arms and the man I sing...
or

Of man's first disobedience and the fruit...
The Kiplingesque 'If' renders not only a famous first word, and a famous first line, but a famous name, and indeed a famous ongoing motive for a justly famous poem:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise...
And yet I would not have it any other way: it is important to let the definite article have its dues. I was talking to Bill the other day - and if you had ever talked to Bill, you would know who Bill was - who noted how exceedingly difficult it was to research the titles of books, publications, and journals, as some sources would have the journal beginning with the definite article (as in 'The Age', 'The Sydney Morning Herald', 'The Herald Sun') - whilst others would be equally adamant that they are to go without (as in 'Age', 'Sydney Morning Herald', 'Herald Sun').

Why must we put editors to so much trouble? We must we harass them with so many bothersome words? I propose a simple solution: from now on, let us omit all other words from the titles of books, publications, and journals, and replace them with a blank space to be filled in by the editor. From now on, they shall all be titled:

The - - - - - - ...

*Rather odd first line, when you think about it. It starts with 'the', and ends with 'things'.

5 comments:

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Latin! Latin is the answer. If I'd written that sentence in Latin it would read thusly: Latin answer is. And what an elegant sentence that would have been. Not a definite article to be found.

Alternatively, abolish nouns.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Sorry, subjunctive: Were I to have written that sentence in Latin, it would have read thusly ... etc.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

(Gosh I'm cool.)

TimT said...

Better Lat-in than Lat-out, I always say.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Yes. And better Lat-in than never-in. (Sorry.)

Email: timhtrain - at - yahoo.com.au

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